A somewhat qualified recommendation this week. Mining a strong tradition of Spanish surrealism in a personal cinema of emotion, Julio Medem is one of my favourite contemporary film-makers. His latest, CaÃ³tica Ana (2007), was a little disappointing, however, because it was a little too easy to understand. Once again, he delves into the mind of an unusual young woman, but gone are the strange shifts of Sex and Lucia or the enigmatic visions of Lovers of the Arctic Circle (never mind the full-blown weirdness of Vacas, The Red Squirrel and Tierra).
Reversing the trajectory of Sex and Lucia, Ana begins on a paradisical island (Ibiza, repository of hippy idealism at least since More). Her paintings are admired by patroness Charlotte Rampling and she leaves her father and the marvellous cave in which they live for Rampling’s institute/hippy art commune in Madrid. Lucia finds a sense of self on her island, and Ana starts to lose hers when she leaves, despite Rampling’s mansion being a hive of activity, filled with other young people creating performance and video art and whatnot. It is here that she has a strange vision of the desert, brought on by the painting of fellow student Said, with whom she begins a love affair. Not long after, the vision is explained when a collapse is treated with hypnosis and she reveals details of a past life.
The rather rum device of previous lives is somewhat more commonplace than one would anticipate from Medem, but more past lives are revealed, each one female, and each culminating in some unnatural and early death. Ana takes little interest in these sessions or her friend Linda’s video recordings of them, and via a lyrical ocean-going interlude, winds up in New York. Her hypnotist is not far behind, however, encouraging her to undergo one last session, for which he must take her, appropriately enough, to an adobe cliff-dwelling. Her first life, it turns out, was as the Goddess of Life 2000 years before, although that didn’t stop the first of her violent demises. As the “mother of good men”, this figure concretises Medem’s enquiry into the relationship between men and women and the latter’s consistent subjugation. As Linda states categorically, men are all rapists and women are all whores, and only her boyfriend (who we see only through his performance art) offers a suggestion that women might in fact be goddesses.
Following an obligatory reunion and a somewhat obvious revelation, it appears that Ana chooses to be whore rather than goddess, in an unexpected denouement, but in fact ends by reiterating her freedom to be whatever she wishes. In fact, she has throughout displayed a dispassionate (almost contemptuous) attitude towards sex, aside only from a quasi-symbolic sequence at the start, where her dazed eyes search a club for man-flesh, and and find a phallus of appropriately enormous size for the Goddess of Life; otherwise, with her casual nudity is associated much more with a natural state (her place of refuge is floating naked in the ocean) and a take-it-or-leave-it attitude whereby she can tell her hypnotist he’s welcome to her while she’s under. The final scene is an explicit defilement of the sexual act, and Medem’s earlier filming of the sex between Ana and Said is amusing, almost farcical; the moments of beauty and connection come only in the afterglow (even if he cannot resist framing her supine breasts as a desert-dune landscape).
This is less the celebration of feminine sexuality of Sex and Lucia than one of femininity full stop, but from the unconnected prologue concerning hawks, their deadly hunting and their super-vision, it’s made up of distant metaphor and woolly allusion rather than focussed inquiry or insight. Nonetheless, it is plainly heartfelt; the film is dedicated to Medem’s late sister Ana (who did the rather appealing paintings) and to his daughter. But the lifting of his gaze from the intensely personal to a realm of generalisations has robbed Medem’s film-making of some of its magic and mystery. This is most obvious in the final scene, where the Iraq war is uncomfortably shoe-horned in. Again, there’s no denying Medem’s heartfelt and appropriately extreme response, but the war’s sudden appearance is ill-integrated and inarticulate, and somewhat suspect in its conflation of warmongers and the entire male gender. Once again, the wider angle of vision is not one with which Medem is comfortable; resisting the temptation to poke around in contemporary (Muslim) politics when Said speaks of the SADR and growing up in a refugee camp, makes for a moving personal history unspoiled by forced meaning.
This misjudgment notwithstanding, there is plenty to enjoy here nonetheless, not least the winning presence of wide-eyed Manuela Velles as Ana, with wonky teeth and a succession of more or less fetching haircuts, her perpetually open face a perfect visage of knowing innocence; Nicolas Cazale is a pretty dark-eyed Berber boy with little to do but be decorative; and Rampling is lumped with a radically underwritten role which requires her constantly to exhort Ana to free her subconscious, be brave, open herself and explore and so on, she but glows bravely in her first Spanish role. Even if it’s relatively staid by Medem’s standards and the dreamlike quality of his more inward-looking fantasies is diluted (and Jocelyn Pook’s score is a wishy-washy come-down after the Alberto Iglesias romantics of Sex and Lucia), it’s still capable of moments of touching lyricism such as the ecstatic birth of a love affair, sequences where Ana brushes hands that pass her in the crowd on the street, and the charmingly animated sequences of Ana’s paintings. It remains a strange and impassioned film; a failure, perhaps, but one with its heart in the right place.
photo from wikipedia